Isabella Casillas Guzman, The Voice of Small Businesses
While small businesses were shuttering their doors at record rates, Isabella Casillas Guzman, the 27th Administrator of the Small Business Administration advocated fiercely for financial relief for small businesses. Sworn in on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, she has presided over the expansion of state-supported lending and the largest COVID-19 grant relief program in the nation at over $2.5 billion. Her role in the current administration is to represent more than 32.5 million U.S. small businesses and entrepreneurs start, grow and be resilient.
Administrator Guzman’s father, Juan F Casillas Sr., bought his first veterinary hospital in East Los Angeles when she was one year old. She recalls accompanying her father to work on weekends, summers, and even after school when she was a child. As he was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to serve on the veterinary medical board in California, she got a firsthand look at the life of an entrepreneur and a community leader. Her interest in business and entrepreneurship was motivated by her father’s encounters with clients and his strong work ethic.
“I’ve always had a passion for small businesses and small business owners and understanding their stories,” she shares. “I saw my dad take home paperwork in the evening after working all day delivering services to animals he cared for… I got to see him in action working with his customers, but also got to learn more and more about the businesses as I grew older. And seeing my dad in that role and knowing that there was a personal engagement you could have with government and make an impact.”
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, she worked as a CPA before returning to work with her dad, where she acquired experience and learned the ins and outs of entrepreneurship while assisting her father’s veterinary hospital networks.
“Most of my experiences have been with entrepreneurs right after that,” she shares. “I continued to work with different founders as they started their businesses,” she shares.
Before joining the Biden-Harris Administration Guzman served as Director of the California Office of the Small Business Advocate, a position she held after Governor Gavin Newsom appointed her in April 2019. In that role, she was the voice of small businesses and innovative startups in the world’s fifth-largest economy. She administered and advocated for programs and initiatives aimed at assisting small businesses in gaining access to capital, markets, and networks for stronger outcomes.
In California, Administrator Guzman oversaw a network of small business centers focused on expanding assistance to underserved business groups. She launched new public-private partnerships and collaborated to deliver cutting-edge resources to small businesses, including through initiatives like Get Digital CA to increase technology and e-commerce adoption and Source Diverse Source Local to strengthen supply chain readiness.
Administrator Guzman previously served at the SBA as the agency’s Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor during the Obama-Biden Administration, where she oversaw policy and new program implementation. During this time, she met one of her mentors, Maria Contreras Sweet, the 24th Administrator of the SBA.
When the pandemic began, she was serving as the lead on small business and innovative startups in California. She had seen from inception the impact on small businesses. So when asked to join the Biden-Harris administration as the SBA administrator, she felt she could not pass on this opportunity.
“It was a huge honor,” she shares. “We hit the ground running with my incredible team to try to really focus on making sure that the COVID release that the SBA was charged with deploying got into the hands of the businesses that it was intended to serve.”
From engagement to outreach to delivering a customer-first experience and leverage technology to better serve and meet the needs of businesses, the SBA focused on funding for business and market access, revenue, growth opportunities for businesses, and networks to support them.
“We looked through it all from the lens of making sure that we can serve the smallest of the small,” she shares. “That’s been my priority. To make sure that the SBA can serve businesses and meet them where they are. In order to do that, we have to be entrepreneurial and pivot and adapt as much as the businesses have had to during this time.”
Today, the administrator exudes confidence. On her watch, the SBA has assisted with $500 billion in both the COVID release programs as well as the core SBA lending programs and investment programs. Most recently, the American rescue plan was launched to deliver direct relief to the American people, rescuing the American economy, and change the course of the pandemic by delivering immediate relief for American workers. The plan will build a bridge to an equitable economic recovery and immediately reduce child poverty. In fact, a Columbia University study found that passing the plan will lift more than 5 million children out of poverty this year, cutting the poverty rate by 50 percent.
All of this allows her to focus on what she says is a resource for not only Latinas but small businesses all over the country.
“We want to make sure that Latinas know that the SBA wants to be a part of their team,” she shares. “That we are defining inclusive ecosystems for our small businesses. There are a lot of opportunities to take advantage of and free government programs to help advance your business. The future needs our economy in order to continue to grow and use all of these great ideas to be able to be fully successful, and they need the investment in the advice to do that. I would encourage entrepreneurs to reach out to the SBA and through our community navigator program to find an organization that can really help you grow and develop your business.”
Administrator Guzman hopes to continue to be that support for families and communities across the country. Whether it’s advocating for Latinas at a local or national level, Administrator Guzman is grateful for the support she has had in her life. While her dad inspired her to pursue an entrepreneurial career, her mother, Carmen Casillas, gave her a voice, as she was a natural advocate for her children and at school.
“I think that is how I got my voice and my fiery spirit sometimes in wanting to be engaged and be part of a conversation,” she shares. “They gave me the foundation on which I have been able to build up everything.”
She encourages everyone to take advantage of the support and initiatives available to entrepreneurs to succeed as our economy continues to recover, from a network of lenders to investment programs to digital e-commerce and federal procurement opportunities.
“We want to make sure that we deliver products and services that meet their needs, especially in today’s marketplace,” she shares. “As we look to the future, we’re learning how to scale at that level so that we can adapt our programs to better reach, especially the underserved businesses.”
Administrator Guzman is excited to be a part of a diverse cabinet and hopes to continue to inspire others to follow in her footsteps. “I’m very proud to be the very first Latina in President Biden’s cabinet. I’ve worked tremendously over the years to try to empower Latinas and Latinos in my lifetime, and I hope that resonates. And I’d love to continue to see more Latinos consider roles in government, especially the economic policy side of government. We have incredible leaders at the White House and across the cabinet, and it’s great to have been engaged with them during the Biden-Harris administration in a whole government approach to so many of our problems and issues. It gives us a chance to collaborate and work together. And so it’s been a great experience.”